First National story filled with glory, intrigue and drama
First National Center is widely considered one of Oklahoma City top architectural treasures. A local development team looks at bringing the landmark back to life at a cost of more than $200 million - a far cry from the building's original cost.
The building, built in just an incredible 10 months during 1931 for $5 million, symbolizes the local banking industry's love affair with oil, and, in later decades, the collapse of Oklahoma City's oil-based economy.
Designed by Weary and Alford Co. of Chicago, the building's sheer size is offset by use of intricate designs in aluminum wrappings around lower windows and entrances. The designs were borrowed from features of King Tutankhamen's tomb.
A monumental, pillared hall for the building's original main tenant, the First National Bank, is softened by a more cozy, ground-floor row of shops.
The building's external focal point is a 33-story tower on its west end, topped by an aluminum aviation beacon tower 456 feet above the sidewalks.
A revolving light with a beam of 2 million candlepower is visible to air traffic up to 75 miles away.
Inside, people are instantly attracted up a set of stairs into a cavernous banking hall with its 14 marble and stone columns leading up to an ornate ceiling and glass skylight.
Four large murals look across the hall from each of its corners. Painted by Edgar Spier Cameron, of Chicago, each scene depicts something from the community's history.
The original banking counters, 42 teller's gates, and a large balcony at the hall's west end that once served as a waiting room for First National customers remain intact.
Travertine stone used inside the room came from as far away as Italy. The stone was chosen for its wear and acoustics (Travertine does not ring when walked upon).
The 1929 stock market crash was already wrecking the national economy, but in Oklahoma City, developers were proceeding with an unprecedented expansion of the downtown skyline as oil continued to buffer, temporarily, the crash from hurting the local economy.
The skyline boom was highlighted by the “great skyscraper race” that took place between crews building First National Tower and what was then Ramsey Tower (now City Place). Downtowners took bets on which tower would open first. At the same time, the 33-story Biltmore Hotel went up at Robinson and Sheridan Avenues, the YWCA went up at Park Place and Hudson Avenue, the Hotel Black was erected at Hudson and Sheridan Avenue, and Skirvin Tower slowly emerged at Park Place and Broadway.
First National's original footprint only covered about half of a city block bordered by Robinson, Broadway, Park and Main when it opened.
Tenants rushed to be the first to move into one of the west's tallest skyscrapers, with some setting up office before it was even complete.
One tenant, the law firm Rainey, Ross, Rice and Binns, moved in before the bank itself. A barbershop on the building's 14th floor also has been a permanent fixture throughout the tower's 68-year history.
And until 1986, First National Bank was the city's premier banking institution. Over the decades, the bank's growth and the city's prosperous economy spurred two expansions.
The first, added in 1957, fronts Park Avenue immediately east of the original tower. The last addition, facing Broadway, was built in 1972. All together, the buildings make up 975,000 square feet.
The oil bust of the 1980s took down banks throughout Oklahoma. The failure of First National Bank in 1986 triggered a series of ownership changes that added to the decline of what had been the bedrock of downtown Oklahoma City:
1986: First National Bank fails and is taken over by Texas-based First Interstate Bank. The property ends up in the control of bankruptcy receivers.
1992: After a series of mergers, the final bank successor at First National, Boatman's Bank, relocates across the street to Leadership Square.
1994: First National is bought for $872,000 by local real estate investors John Kennedy and Mike Samis. The pair also buy the adjoining nine-story Main Street Parking Garage for $3.2 million. The pair announce plans to renovate the property using $5 million in grants from the city and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development but the project never materializes.
1998: Kennedy and Samis donate the office buildings to Feed The Children and retain ownership of the Main Street Parking Garage.
1999: First National Center is sold for $5 million to east coast developers Joel S. Hoffman and Mitchell Wolff, who promise a redevelopment of the complex. Occupancy continues to plummet and no improvements occur.
Hoffman and Wolff never fulfilled their promises of redevelopment and with utility cut-off notices posted on the front door, the pair sold the property to California investor Aaron Yashouafar. He too promised to bring the landmark back to its former glory, but a few years later, Yashouafar was facing criminal fraud charges, his companies were going bankrupt, and First National fell into even more disrepair and chaos.
2006: Utility cutoff notices are posted on the front door of First National Tower as Hoffman and Wolff sell the property to California buyers Aaron Yashouafar, Solyman Yashouafar and Simon Barlava. The three promise to bring First National Center back to its glory days as a Class A office property and they are introduced to the city's movers and shakers as buyers who will keep their word. The $21 million purchase is financed by Capmark, the former GMAC financing group that was alleged to have made reckless commercial loans after being bought out the same year by Goldman Sachs Group and KKR & Co.
2008: Some renovations take place under the Yashouafars that include updating of First National's life safety systems and a half-finished remodeling of the first floor retail arcade. Work stops as the Yashouafars are hit with lawsuits and claims of fraud involving their properties in New York, Nevada and California.
2010: The Yashouafars file for bankruptcy protection for their First National holding companies following a foreclosure filed by Capmark.
2012: The Yashouafars settle their debt with Capmark and claim to have sold the property to a California textile company's owners Yoel, Leon and John Neman.
2013: Aaron Yashouafar continues to manage First National even as he pleads guilty to embezzling $1 million from a senior resident condominium association in Las Vegas.
2015: Utilities are shut off at First National as a court battle results in confusion over who owns the property.
2015: U.S. District Judge Stephen Friot places the building into receivership. The property is closed on July 30.
After soliciting purchase bids, receiver Jim Parrack chooses local developer Gary Brooks and partner Charlie Nicholas to buy the landmark for $23 million. The sale closed earlier this year and the pair are now in the midst of clearing debris and asbestos from the building while designs are ongoing for conversion into a hotel, retail and housing. Plans call for the Great Banking Hall to be converted into a hotel lobby, lounge and restaurant.